A Heritage Site Lost in the South
I

t is UNESCO World Heritage Day and I want to write about a historic site. One that has suffered from a century of neglect. One that, sadly, is not listed amongst the UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Having read about the historic Women’s War of 1929 – a series of protests and riots that saw thousands of Nigerian women fight their colonial overlords for equality and justice, I was keen to visit the place where the riots were said to have taken place. What I did not know was that I was about to visit a truly historical site – a coastal town that was a slave port in the 18th century, a battle ground for women’s rights in the 19th century, and the seat of a British Consulate in the 20th century.

“Ikot Abasi is a small town in the oil rich Akwa Ibom state of the deep south of Nigeria […]”

Ikot Abasi is a small town in the oil rich Akwa Ibom state of the deep south of Nigeria, and while I admit that I only went there to relive the history of the infamous Women’s War of 1929, I must also admit that I got more than I bargained for.

Walking down a rather quiet road, my local guide stopped and asked me to look to my left. What I saw was an imposing, yet rather shabby house that did not conform to the aesthetics of the other houses I had seen in the region so far.

People seemed to be living in there so I thought to myself; “maybe we’re outside the home of a village chief or local politician”. Well, I wasn’t exactly wrong, as we stood outside the former residence of none other than Lord Frederik Lugard.

“[…] a coastal town that was a slave port in the 18th century, a battle ground for women’s rights in the 19th century, and the seat of a British Consulate in the 20th century.”

Frederik Lugard was a British soldier and mercenary, who served as the High Commissioner of the Northern Nigeria Protectorate from 1900 till 1906 before returning as the Governor of both the Northern and Southern Nigeria Protectorates from 1912 till 1914. For those of you unfamiliar with the colonial history of Nigeria, the country as we know it did not exist until 1914 – when the Northern and Southern Protectorates were amalgamated as the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria, with Lord Lugard as its first Governor-General.

When my guide explained to me that this very house was at some point occupied by the very man who was behind the birth of Africa’s most populous nation, I was struck by the latent state in which the house found itself in. To think that for all the international fame and national dominance that Lagos has over any other southern state, here was a house that was more original and evidently older than the famous Lord Lugard House in Badagry, I was amazed to say the very least, and even more astonished by the fact that people actually lived in this historic building.

“[…] this very house was at some point occupied by the very man who was behind the birth of Africa’s most populous nation […]”

We approached the house as I was not about to pass up a chance to see history from up close. As usual, we received a warm welcome by the family who lived in the house, and they even invited us to roam freely and have a look around. Even though we were absolute strangers, they were happy to let us look around their home.

The external structures of the house were only marginally damaged, and considering the humid climate in the region, they seemed to be in a relatively stable condition. It was impressive to freely roam the premises of this imposing house, but imagining how this infamous Governor must have lived in utter luxury among the exploited, maltreated locals, left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that a great injustice to the local people was being done here. This site, a reminder of western oppression and governance, was left to decay in the middle of the thick West African vegetation. While some may argue that such a site does not deserve any attention, and that this part of history is best forgotten, I beg to disagree with such a stance, and would argue that forgetting suggests indifference, and if we forget to learn from the past, history will remember to repeat itself.

“[…] forgetting suggests indifference, and if we forget to learn from the past, history will remember to repeat itself.”

After all, German concentration camps all over Europe are being maintained and visited. Entire school classes journey half-way across the continent of Europe, just to see what the Nazi regime did to the Jews in Europe – not to give credit to the regime, but to remember what happened, and to be warned against the repetition of such cruelty.

While the romantic in me admires the inversion of circumstances in the local people’s ability to take control of a former slave port and even inhabit the house of their former Governor-General, claiming back what is rightfully theirs and making it clear that it is theirs, the historian and the activist in me want to scream at the local and national leaders for leaving such an important piece of their history at the mercy of inevitable decay.

“The house of Lord Frederik Lugard and the entirety of the marina beach area are reminders of a not so distant past.”

So, on this UNESCO World Heritage Day, I want to draw your attention to a building and the site upon which it was built. Sadly, it has been ignored by the local and national authorities of Nigeria for over a century now, and will probably never be considered worthy of the UNESCO World Heritage Site title and protection. The house of Lord Frederik Lugard and the entirety of the marina beach area are reminders of a not so distant past. A past in which the British enslaved, and later, colonised the people of the nation we now call Nigeria.

This site should not be forgotten. On the contrary, it should remind us of what humans can do to each other when the quest for political and economic power takes precedence over peace and love. This site, which is now left unattended and inhabited by local people, should not be allowed to become the victim of decay and destruction. It should be preserved to serve as the basis of future research and dispersal of knowledge for it stands as testament to a painful history, and the shameful legacy of British Colonial rule.

“This site should not be forgotten. On the contrary, it should remind us of what humans can do to each other when the quest for political and economic power takes precedence over peace and love.”